Union Chief Pushes Tough Line on Trade

United Steelworkers' Leo Gerard said that China tries to push the U.S. around on trade and that he hopes
United Steelworkers' Leo Gerard said that China tries to push the U.S. around on trade and that he hopes "our government would start talking back." (Matt Rourke - AP)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

As visitors to this week's G-20 summit in Pittsburgh are frequently reminded, the host city has bounced back from the collapse of its steel industry in the 1980s.

But for the city's preeminent union, the United Steelworkers, the arguments that began here decades ago over the threat of foreign trade are far from settled.

On Friday, the United Steelworkers weighed whether to join a trade case accusing China of dumping seamless steel tubes in the United States. Earlier this week, it launched a lawsuit with three U.S. manufacturers against Chinese imports of coated paper. These actions closely followed two trade victories the union garnered earlier this month with a tariff on Chinese tires and a favorable decision on other steel products.

So as many speak in Pittsburgh of the virtues of international economic cooperation, embattled union President Leo W. Gerard, a gruff and perpetually disheveled 62-year-old former nickel smelter worker, advocated something else entirely, and showed that whatever the G-20 sentiments, maintaining trade peace is not entirely up to those national leaders.

In discussing charges that Chinese and Indonesian paper suppliers were dumping product in the United States, Gerard called for more confrontation with China, which he frequently compares to a schoolyard tyrant.

"They want to bully their way around," he said of the Chinese exporters and government officials. They "think they can push us around," he said. "I would hope our government would start talking back."

The union's victory in the Chinese tires case, which came when President Obama approved a 35 percent tariff, provoked a storm of criticism from advocates of free trade as well as from China.

In the critics' view, the steelworkers campaign is a form of protectionism that risks provoking a broader trade war, which in turn could endanger the global economy.

A trade war could, the argument goes, backfire on the union by making manufacturing in the United States more difficult because it would become more difficult for companies to acquire cheap imported supplies. It would also raise prices for consumers.

"The steelworkers have a reflexive opposition to trade liberalization that is not in the long-term interest of their members," said Stephen Claeys, a former Bush administration trade official. "They're just never satisfied."

The predominance of such views, particularly in the media and Washington think tanks, makes Gerard angry, and he quickly lashed out at a group of about 10 reporters at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh earlier this month.

"I resent all of you," he said. "Every one of you writes the same crap -- that this is protectionism. This isn't protectionism -- we're enforcing the law."


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